The new political reality
Wow, was that a capper to an interesting night. Twenty past midnight, the witching hour, Malcolm Turnbull staggers out to address the crowds at the Sofitel in Sydney. The final result is undecided at the time, but one vote has been cast – that of no confidence in Turnbull as prime minister. He had perhaps imagined this evening as one of triumph – a reduced majority but a clear one, saving the party from drowning in the ditch that Tony Abbott had taken it into. Instead, all was chaos. Either a hung parliament or an impossible one- or two-seat majority; a senate that will cause us to look back with nostalgia on the smooth operation of the Palmer bloc; the choice of trying to stumble through three years of blackmail and horse trading, with the most likely end an ignominious dumping, sooner rather than later. Worse still, there’s nothing that can be done about it.
And history beckons, writing your name at the bottom of the board, among the wooden spooners’ club, just above Fisher and Fadden and below Abbott. Below bloody Abbott. You’ve spent the whole evening with your family rather than moving among the party faithful, and they, being family, have helped you in finding others to blame: those lying Labor ads; the uncomprehending media; above all, the boneheaded public. You have spent eight weeks keeping your cool. You only have to do it for 15 minutes more. And then...
The Malcolm Turnbull we saw on Saturday night was so very different to the one we usually see – the smooth lawyer, talking with agility; the suave man of the arts; the relentlessly bouncy booster – that some people wondered if he was having some sort of breakdown. Well, he may have come close, but it was more in the genre of classic dummy spits or pity-party-for-one shows, from Cheryl Kernot’s anger at not being given an easier seat to win in 1998 to Kevin Rudd’s 20-minute self-disembowelling, and going all the way back to Richard Nixon’s “concession” speech on not being elected governor of California. Turnbull snarled and sooked and, bizarrely, went on at length about the pretext for this disastrous campaign in the first place – the failure of the senate to ratify a renewed Australian Building and Construction Commission – a moment that marked the matter’s second appearance in 56 days.
That note did him no favours. It simply told us how bogus the whole thing had been. The eight-week campaign had never seemed like a good idea for a man with the attention span of Tigger. He kept it going as long as he could, and was ebullient throughout, but by the middle of last week, according to his press bus, he simply ran out of juice, spending the last three days dandling his grandkids. Shorten, by contrast, was in his element, adapting to it like it was one of the grinding campaigns to get the services officer position in the Amalgamated Frittlers and Slurryists (Tasmania) of his youthful factional years: round and round and round, say a little, shake a few hands, move on. Many people, this writer included, thought he was underplaying it, giving short defensive speeches whose summary, and pretty much entirety, was “Save Medicare”. Whatever it was, it worked.
Shorten’s team will now claim to be transcendent geniuses with a unique take on the public mood. The truth is more prosaic. The campaign began tied at 50 each; eight exhausting weeks later, it was the same, forecasting a draw between the two major parties. Few of us wanted to believe it, because we were all spooked by the polling disaster in Britain – Labor on track to win, the Conservatives getting a majority in the marginals. This time, the marginals proved no great outlier: Labor got close to a 4 per cent swing, a serious repudiation of the government. At time of writing it looks as though it may come second by number of seats, but win the overall popular vote.
The result of this vote may be a period of instability in politics, but, contrary to the view of most commentators, it is not a record of instability in political belief. Quite the opposite. The Australian public are where they have always been – a centrist social democratic public, with a firm residual belief in social fairness and the use of the state to ensure it. Four times in a generation, the Coalition have tried to push the country beyond a certain centre-left midpoint on matters economic; four times they have been rejected. Each time – from 1993’s Fightback through 2004’s WorkChoices to 2014’s $7 co-payment and 2016’s Mediscare doctors’ rebate freeze – the challenge has got weaker, and more conciliatory. Yet each time it has been rejected.
Over the 30 years encompassing those challenges, Australian mainstream life has changed from a substantially class-bound existence with a more collective identity to a far more individualised and atomised one, with greater material prosperity as an alleged tradeoff. Yet despite the disappearance of much of that collectivism and the centrality of working-class life, a commitment to an underlying fairness remains. In part, this is because the aggregate numbers have disguised rising inequality – many people have lost both the comforts of a more collective life and been shut out of the new prosperity. The culture offers them nothing but exclusion and the bitter bread of envy. It’s one reason why the Coalition had a wipeout in Tasmania. If Chris Bowen keeps banging on about how great globalisation is, that will be a reason why those new Labor members will be replaced by MPs from the Jacqui Lambie Network.
But there seems every indication that old Labor groupings whose prosperity has lifted them into the working-middle-classes bracket – couples on $100-180k – retain a commitment to an enabling state. In the United States, many such are Republican voters, and rationally so – hooked on tax cuts they require to compensate for the collapse of social provision. That we have avoided that self-interest death spiral is a measure of how much we have retained, not of how much has changed.
That extends even to the loosening of major party dominance. New parties are gaining ground because they express features of Australian politics that have been shut out by the pro-globalisation monopoly the major parties have exercised in macroeconomic affairs in the past 25 years. Thus the Greens have consolidated their role as political representatives of the culture-knowledge-policy producer class, about 10 per cent of the vote, and focused on those areas where such people live and work. The thick-headed press gallery, having spent a decade waiting for the Greens’ imminent Democrats-style demise, are now writing stories about their stagnation, a sure sign of success. The fact that the Greens vote has hit that 10 per cent ceiling, and may stay there for some time, is a challenge the Greens have to deal with – open to the possibility of great gains, while creating a political culture that does not require them for long-term commitment and support.
Nick Xenophon Team, the new party that will have two or three senators and at least one crucial lower house representative, may look as if it organised around the wily genius of Nick Xenophon. In fact it represents a tradition cut out of the mainstream – Australian nationalist centrism, drawing substantially on Catholic social doctrine. From the latter, with its notions of collective life, mutual reliance and “subsidiarity” – the notion that social institutions should not be “translated upwards” into ever more abstract and distant authority – there is the basis for a powerful critique of globalisation, and a powerful defence of localisation and protection. It is an attitude many Australians have never abandoned. Instead, they have simply been sold out by a Labor Party that converted to the neoliberal “social market” idea that you supercharge the economy and then look after the losers from the process. Surprisingly, the losers get jack of that eventually.
Should NXT prosper, and use its gained position to expand substantially, politics could start to change, really change, and fast. In a whole range of seats, its presence as a fourth player would make the two-major preference lockout unworkable. The jealously guarded primary vote of Liberal and Labor will crack eventually. If Turnbull, out of pique, exasperation and more poor judgement, goes straight to another election, that process will be supercharged. People have had enough of being courtiers for Liberal whims or a distant and self-satisfied Labor elite. Any seat where NXT and the Greens can share 30-40 per cent of the vote between them will be in play. Labor’s pathetic, neurotic and draining identity struggle against the Greens, the last of the Whitlamite vision, will be the least of their worries. In a decade they may be shoring up a 25 per cent primary vote, not a 35 per cent one. The Liberals have avoided splits for decades; can they do so now? The only hope that their moderate and “Howardist” conservatives may have of avoiding consignment to the fringe may be via a series of punishing de- and pre-selection fights, with the final outcome uncertain.
For both major parties the challenge will come as much from the populists: Hanson, Lambie and others, all of different aspect and type. Much of the content of this populism is, simply, nothing other than what an ordinary member of the ALP or Liberal Party believed a half-century ago. The political–media caste imagines that social-historical time flows the same everywhere. It doesn’t. The revival of Pauline Hanson’s fortunes is not a sign that the new senate system is “a disaster” or that “the genie is out of the bottle”. That’s nasty, elitist stuff. What it means is that people knew who they were voting for, and got them, rather than whichever carousel creation of insiders the ticket-voting system dished up. Hanson’s vote – about 8 per cent – is not an unusual showing for a nativist party, with the usual obsessions, in a Western society. The new system didn’t conjure her supporters into being. They were always there. Now their reasonable arguments can be debated, and their more noxious and wacky ones vociferously challenged. Finally, the 2016 election got exciting. It just happened after the voting stopped.
The excitement shows no sign of ending any time soon. There is a leadership vacuum, no compromise program on the table, weeks of recounts and challenges followed by a government of perpetual crisis and the possibility of real disruption – a change to the voting structures that have given the major parties undeserved dominance for so long. Truly, as our prime minister did not say in his angry, thwarted, chuckout speech, there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Key change from major to minor". Subscribe here.